Motown x Carhartt WIP
How Motown Records changed Pop music, culture, style and attitude
Words: Grace Risch
Carhartt WIP is at it again, creating great collabs, this time with legendary record label and landmark of pop music history: Motown Records. Our favorite brand pays homage to an institution that can be said to have changed the world.
I have a box with half of my mother’s record collection, the other half of which my brother managed to pinch. I find some records from the Motown era in it. Among them are music and entertainment icons like Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and The Jackson Five. I often see the little sign »Tamla-Motown« in a corner or on the edges. But what does that actually mean?
Okay, I think we need a proper throwback, after all this is Motown Records we’re talking about – the, you might say, inventor of true pop music:
USA, 60 years ago. We’re in Detroit, Michigan, in the midst of racial segregation. Very briefly, there are no equal rights for the oppressed Afro American population of America. A time when Rhythm and Blues flooded America‘s underground, but was discriminatorily hailed as »race music« by white Americans. But at the same time white artists, such as Elvis Presley, had a huge success with this music, or music that relied to a large extent on it, while the pioneers of Rhythm and Blues remained unknown at first.
A turning point was needed, and it came: Songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. founded the independent label Tamla Records with only 800 dollars borrowed from his family, which was renamed as Motown Records shortly after. A sound was to be created that was for everyone and for the whole world. The name that Gordy chose for his two-story family home, »Hitsville U.S.A.« defined the objective from the beginning on. The ground floor was converted into the legendary »Studio A« a.k.a. the »Snake Pit«, because it was here that Detroit’s most productive record company ever and the biggest hit machine in the history of pop music was born.
»The Funk Brothers«, the label’s own band, recorded more No. 1 hits here during Motowns classic era until the early 1970s than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley altogether. But not only the intentionally mainstream and unique sound made the success, but rather a kind of 360 degree approach.
For the artists signed to Motown Records, royalty was the motto: Elegance, grace, class and attractiveness, but not too much sex appeal. The artists were not only well groomed and well dressed in fine garments and tailored suits, but also put this style into action in attitude and movement, not least in the significant, glamorous choreographies during their live performances. Methodical emphasis was placed on visual experience, and in this time of black oppression an upscale and elevated appearance, presentation and corresponding movement in Motown’s sense were cultivated.
»The Sound of Young America«
This new definition and thus revolution of the image of African Americans should not only have a positive effect on the self-confidence and reputation of other black artists, but also gradually turn the whole of America into fans and transform it. Through taking over the previously white-dominated charts, the term “The Sound of Young America” came into being as a synonym for the record label, which had become globally famous from the Mid-1960s, after succesfully expanding its sphere of influence to the UK and beyond. Gordy’s plan worked out and the hits of Motown’s artists were celebrated equally by all.
Suddenly it was possible for black front singers to perform their hit on TV shows with a white dance company dancing the choreographies in the background. Some of the label’s artists went so far as to remove the rope in the venues for live concerts that used to separate the white fans from the black fans in order to unite the audience and let them experience the music together. So when a white American woman who actually didn’t let her kids watch TV shows that involved African Americans, started to make an exception whenever The Supremes came on, this was the tangible result of an entire style created by Motown. This dissolution of boundaries became real and Motown became a catalyst of the civil rights movement. The most famous civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King himself was a guest in »Studio A« and recorded his legendary speech »I Have a Dream« there before giving it in front of more than 250,000 people on the march on Washington in 1963.
So as I browse through my record box and remember the music that had so naturally accompanied me during my childhood on a daily basis (even though it was all written before my time), it strikes me that I hardly realized what an impact not only the songs and their worldwide success have to this day, but that this music is part of an overall cultural and social legacy. So much of the pop culture we live and experience today would not be possible without Motown Records. Everyone knows »What’s Going On«, »Baby Love« and »My Girl«, or »I Can’t Help Myself« and »Do You Love Me«, but who knows the history of all this, and its extent?
And it is exactly this history that Carhartt WIP pays respect to with this extensive tribute collection of 13 pieces.
For example on the »L/S MOTOWN SUBLABELS T-SHIRT«, featuring a summary of the Motown history printed on the back, while both sleeves are adorned with the logos of the numerous sublabels of Motown Records. Founding these sublabels back then was a smart move by Berry Gordy to bypass laws that prohibited radio stations from playing many artists and songs from the same record company. Additionally, he made sure he was free to work with many genres, from soul, funk to country, rock, etc.
The »S/S MOTOWN SNAKE PIT WORK SHIRT« with the writing »Snake Pit, Studio A« on the back and the exact Detroit address of Hitsville U.S.A., feels like a personal souvenir, as if you had been there yourself. Then there’s a declaration of love, the »S/S MOTOWN TOGETHER SHIRT«, which for me summarizes the vibe of this significant collaboration, that struck me at the very first glance. No part of this collection is without meaning.
I imagine myself wearing the »HOODED MOTOWN SWEAT« or the »MOTOWN VARSITY JACKET« with the unmistakable, big Motown-M. On the black version of the matching »MOTOWN X CARHARTT WIP T-SHIRT« the logo in »prism violet« perfectly fuses with the Carharrt WIP logo, as if this common logo had always existed in this form. This logo can also be found on the »MOTOWN X CARHARTT WIP X MASTERSOUNDS Record Weight«, and in combination with the Phonon Lollipop-Style DJ headphones »MOTOWN X CARHARTT WIP PHONON O2« the collection is tastefully rounded off.
Pop x Hip Hop x Pop
So anyway, I also notice how, against this whole historical background, the idea of walking around sporting the Motown logo alone makes my back straighten up. And yes, I get it. Because it makes me proud to feel that I belong to this cultural wealth. We all are the children of a freedom that Motown Records has created, and from the abundance of which we can all draw today.
Basically, everything we hear today is unthinkable without Motown because it created a sound that was truly accessible to everyone at the time. Consider that without Motown samples, Hip Hop would have been bland and empty, perhaps not as relevant and great. In this case this means that an entire genre and thus an entire further music culture would not have emerged in this form if the sound of Motown had not nourished, inspired and fired the sample culture of Hip Hop music.
I remember, for example, Coolio’s mid-nineties anthem »Gangsta’s Paradise«, which is widely based on the concise string loop of the song »Pastime Paradise« by Motown star Stevie Wonder and even uses its hook melody. Just like the much more recent track »Break Your Heart Right Back« by Ariana Grande feat. Childish Gambino (like many before) uses elements of Diana Ross’ »I’m Coming Out«, Valerie Simpsons’s intro-adlip from her song »Benjie« is looped endlessly in Lil Wayne’s tune »With You« featured by Drake. Since the 1980s until today, artists like Method Man, Gangstarr, J Dilla and Q-Tip, Nas, DMX, The Notorious B.I.G., 50 Cent, Missy Elliott and Ludacris, but also Eminem, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Justin Bieber have all used samples from the pool of the Motown era. And yes, believe it or not, even DJ Bobo belongs in this list, which is eternally long, and doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon.
Nowadays Hip Hop and Rap are an integral part of pop music, which means that in a way, Motown is everywhere. Not to mention its direct influence, a powerful and expansive self-confidence of black artists that Motown made possible, and a glamour of all artists that Motown inspired. Motown Records is proof of the power and impact that music has, from past to present and into the future.
»Showing Up, Showing Out«
For the release of the collection dedicated to Motown, Carhartt WIP and Dazed Magazine present the documentary film »Showing Up, Showing Out« by filmmakers Margot Bowman and Imani Mixon, which gives an insight into today’s Detroit music scene and reflects on the influence of the record label on the city of Detroit.
A look into the past, the present and the future of Motown and an industrial metropolis that is also the birthplace of workwear institution Carhartt itself. No one else would be better suited for a tribute to Motown than a brand that also knows what it means to have influenced youth and culture and thus conquered the world.
Release today – Nov 14th
So if you want to celebrate this rich heritage of Motown with one or more pieces of the limited and exclusive Motown x Carhartt WIP tribute collection, head over to HHV and grab your piece of history:
And because we are HHV we sure have a decent assortment of Motown Gems for you:
…if you need me, I’ll be listening to some records now.